When I fell while skating, my most immediate concern was the hit I took to my head. I went to an urgent care clinic to have it checked out, but the people I saw there were more concerned about my wrist. I didn’t have any of the obvious symptoms of a concussion or other head injury (no loss of consciousness, no vomiting, no confusion), but my wrist was a little broken and required a cast.
The large lump on my head that emerged soon after the fall dissipated within a day. Although a very tender spot remained, my head seemed to be mostly a non-issue. I carried on with my life as normal, working as a substitute teacher a few days, traveling to visit my parents over the Thanksgiving holiday, writing posts here, reading, etc.
About 12 days out from the fall, however, I realized I was struggling. I kept having persistent, low-grade headaches that weren’t migraines. I was exhausted, even on days when I didn’t do much. And the sore spot on my skull wasn’t getting any better. I contacted my doctor’s office–just to be sure there wasn’t something I should be doing or having checked out–and was told I likely have post-concussive syndrome. As it turns out, it’s possible to have a concussion but symptoms that don’t appear immediately. I never knew concussion could work this way or that there is such a thing as post-concussive syndrome. Thought this might be useful information to share.
The treatment is rest and no screens and no reading. I spent all of this week following those orders. I’m happy to report that I can see progress. Headaches are gone, and my tolerance for screens is improving.
This whole experience has been an education in several ways. I can’t write about it now, but soon. I hope. One lesson is that plans are really just hopes. You never know when or how they might be upended. Take care of yourselves.
Over the past few weeks I subbed a few days in a high school entrepreneurship class. It was the easiest sub gig ever, as there was a teacher teaching the class. She is a business owner with all kinds of qualifications to teach the subject, but no teaching license. I was there to meet legal requirements to have a certified teacher in the room. Because I wasn’t teaching much, I was often able to sit back and participate as a co-learner with the students.
That is how I came to be listening to Brené Brown talking about shame and courage and risk and getting “in the arena” in a new way. It’s how I found myself thinking about her ideas within the context of work and money and worth in ways that aren’t typical for me.
Let me back up a little.
When I officially “retired,” I did so with dreams about living a simple life. I just wanted a small, quiet, uncomplicated existence in which I could be healthy and be present with and for the people I love. My labor would be focused on making our home and caring for our family and friends, and that would be purpose enough for me. I was sure I could be content with much less money than I had become used to having because I would need less in our simpler life.
For the most part, this dream has come true.
For the most part.
There have been some points of minor rub. While it has been wonderful to finally have the time to do life’s labors in ways I’ve always wanted to do them–We’ve been eating well! I love eating well!–it hasn’t been quite as satisfying as I hoped it might be. Homemaking chores are often more boring than creative (there: I said it), and the Sisyphean nature of much of them has, at times, prompted moments of existential malaise. My new work has also given rise to questions about and shifts within my identity. This, in turn, has created shifts in my relationship with Cane that he claims not to feel but that sometimes feel tectonic in nature to me.
And then there’s money. (Isn’t there always money?)
I’m not substitute teaching because I’m bored or because I miss being in schools. I’m subbing because I need/want to bring in more money than my pension provides. We do live pretty simply and happily simply, but in the past year things have happened that I didn’t anticipate. Things that required money.
(Why didn’t I anticipate them? I don’t know. Things always happen. Things that require money. I do know this.)
Right now, subbing is the gig that gives me the biggest financial bang for the buck of my time (which is, of course, my life). It’s pleasant in many ways, and (because the world of public education is so often nonsensical) it pays more per hour than the more creative and challenging professional development work I’m also continuing to do. It doesn’t take much out of me, making that simpler life more attainable than it would be if I engaged in other forms of work. But.
It is nonetheless messing with the whole simple-life thing. Just adding a day or two of work outside the home each week is tipping some balance I was mostly achieving about making home my work. Even though subbing is far less taxing than the work I used to do as an educator, I still come home from it worn out. I come home from it not wanting to make dinner (or run a load of laundry or do dishes). I come home from it less able to be present with my husband or daughter or friends. It also puts pressure on the days I am not doing it, as I scramble to play catch-up.
And. It meets few needs/wants other than the one I have to make money. It feels a lot like babysitting, a work gig I purposely never did much of as a teenager. Babysitting is great for some, and it fills important needs, too–but it’s never been great for me. If there are better alternatives, I don’t like the idea of spending any of what’s left of my life doing something that’s not really for me, for the sole purpose of earning money. If I have to engage in money-earning, I guess I’d like to get more than just money from it.
(Here is where I feel compelled to acknowledge my good fortune that that makes all of these questions/wonderings possible. I know I’m lucky that these are the questions I get to contemplate.)
So, that’s the mental/emotional/physical landscape I was traveling through, babysitting in a classroom and stewing a bit in these questions about my current situation, when Brené began talking to all of us about being in the arena. As I listened, I began wondering what “the arena” even is. When I was a full-time educator, I know that I was for-sure in one. I was taking risks, I was working for change, I was often–to use Brown’s language–daring greatly. That meant I was also, more often than I liked, falling down in the dirt and failing–because, according to Brown, that’s an inevitable part of being in the arena. So, education was clearly an arena.
But am I in one now? Most people would think that retiring is about exiting arenas, but maybe my decision to transform myself into a full-time homemaker was about getting into a different arena. Maybe the friction I’m feeling is evidence that it is, in fact, a kind of arena. Or maybe I’m not in any arenas at all and I just jumped into a risky situation in a kind of half-cocked way that was more foolish than courageous. I am not sure where I am vis-à-vis Brown’s arenas, but I know that wherever I am is not a place I’m entirely comfortable being.
All of this listening/thinking/wondering in combination with hours of not a lot to actively do took me back to Substack. Sitting in those entrepreneurship classes while perusing newsletter after newsletter (a term that doesn’t entirely make sense to me, because the ones I read are more like blogs or magazines) turned a big lightbulb on in my head: Substack writers that use paywalls are entrepreneurs. Instead of being hired as writers, they are putting out their own shingle. They are selling their work directly to consumers. They are building businesses.
This realization (which, really, should have been kind of a duh! moment) brought up so many feelings! Of ick and shame and fear and other emotions that Brené talks about! (And, also, a little bit of excitement and possibility.)
(See how I even have to put those other emotions as an afterthought, and in parentheses, and qualify them as “little”? Almost as if I don’t want those bigger, upfront emotions to notice them. As if I don’t want you, my dear-to-me readers, to notice them.)
This realization + my feelings + Brown’s thoughts about arenas lit up a whole lot of other ideas/wonderings–about art, craft, labor, money, cultural mythologies, gendered roles, my history with writing and publishing, and more. Thanks to the serendipity that put me in that class at this point in time, I’m thinking about these things through different lenses than I’ve previously done. As I’ve done so, a kind of lethargy that’s plagued me for a very long time is beginning to recede. I feel my pulse quickening in a way I’d almost forgotten it could do. A way I feared I was perhaps too old to feel again, despite all the voices in the world telling me that I’m not.
And that feels good, even if not entirely comfortable. It feels good to be more curious than avoidant, and more open than closed. (Hmmm…maybe I’m getting more out of the sub gig than I thought?…)
I have no grand conclusions today. Just questions and beginnings of questions. I’d love to hear what you think about any of these things I’ve touched on here. I know we all have to figure out our ways of working and being in the world, and it’s great to learn from others’ experiences.
Other tidbits from the week…
Has anyone ever played this?
We’re looking for a good game for Christmas day for 4-5 adults who don’t want to have to learn something big and complicated. Suggestions very welcome.
The splint has been replaced by a cast, which is supposed to be on for 6 weeks. Typing is a much more reasonable undertaking now. Not loving it, but it could be so much worse.
On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, while waiting in line to make a return at a crowded Fred Meyer (Kroger), seeing this felt like the universe was giving us all a gift of some found poetry .
I have a story to tell. It’s a story about inner voices, parenting, perceptions, professionalism, growth, and aging.
Unfortunately, I currently have only one hand to type with, and that is slow-going. So, the story-telling is going to have to wait a bit. Here’s the short version: I fell while learning a routine for an ice-skating show I had mixed feelings about participating in. I went to urgent care because I hit my head (hard), but it was my arm/wrist that was more seriously hurt. It’s in a splint, but will likely get a cast next week. A bone-density scan is in my future. A nurse-practitioner was a jerk and triggered old things. Many thoughts and realizations followed. I’m OK. Planning to get back on my skates as soon as I can because I want to and I get to and F*** that guy who was a jerk.
This week I had lunch with a friend I haven’t seen since late May. After filling her in on things that have happened since then, she leaned back and said, “And what are you doing to take care of yourself?”
I smiled and shrugged a little.
“Because I just want you to know: That’s a lot. All I’ve had to do is listen, and I feel exhausted.”
This month I began substitute teaching. I do this work only at the school where I last taught; it is a place I know and am known, a small school with a healthy culture and community. On Tuesday, as I attempted to support a student in finding another student to partner with for an interview activity, they stood up and walked out of the room. They came back a bit later, and they began crying when I approached and asked if they were OK. We moved to the hallway, where, in tears, they apologized for leaving the way they had and explained that they have anxiety and panic attacks, and that in the classroom they’d had their third one of the day. I’d like to tell you that this kind of incident is rare, but it’s not. (A lot of the kids are not all right.)
This week, I began reading KC Davis’s How to Keep House While Drowning: A Gentle Approach to Cleaning and Organizing. I am reading it because I want to learn how to better support someone I love. I appreciate this writer’s reminder of the importance of framing: “Care tasks are morally neutral.” It is our culture that assigns worth to how well we perform them–and shame when we fall short of cultural ideals. Davis tells us that “mess has no inherent meaning.” We assign plenty of meaning to it, though: That because of mess in our surroundings, we are a mess (or incompetent or disgusting or lazy). Davis encourages us to choose for ourselves what meaning it has for us, and to choose gently.
In my lunch with my friend, a retired teacher, we talked about how different today’s kids are from the kids we taught at the beginning of our careers, and how different they seem from the kids we remember ourselves being. We are elder Gen-Xers who came of age in a time with much less existential threat and far better economic prospects and supports, but we were given much less emotional support and time from our parents than today’s youth. “They seem to have so much less resilience,” she said.
“We didn’t get as much care as they do, and we turned out all right,” she added.
“Did we?” I asked. “I mean, I’m on my third marriage.”
“And maybe that’s because you turned out great!” she argued. “Maybe that means you had relationships that gave you something you needed for a time, and then you were strong enough to leave them when they no longer did.”
Last weekend I attended a funeral for a family member. “Have you been doing any writing?” my cousin’s husband asked me. He was a musician when I first knew him; after his son was born he gave up playing professionally and took a full-time day job with good pay and benefits. For years he has asked me this almost every time I see him, and my answer is always the same: “Not really.”
I shrug and smile. The real answer feels like too much to say in a big group of people standing around a small kitchen. I don’t actually know what the real answer is, but I know that much about it.
There is nothing like an unexpected funeral for someone younger than your parents to make you contemplate what it is you are doing with your life, and how it might be even shorter than you have, in recent years, come to realize it is.
“Are you just feeling like you don’t have anything to say?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said, nodding. That is a truth: I don’t have anything I feel compelled to say. But I was also thinking: Or maybe too much. And: There’s not enough time. And: There are so many voices in the world already, so much that I feel like I’m drowning in the cacophony.
It’s a lot of things.
In one version of my substitute teaching story, I made a kid cry and leave the room. In another, I was an adult that a student felt safe enough with to talk honestly about their mental health struggles.
Something happened this week that made me lose it. Truly, out-of-control lose it. The kind of losing it where you slam doors and throw objects. Where you stand alone in a room and scream from a place deep within your body. Where rage demands physical expression. This has happened to me only a few times in my life, but they’ve all been within the past ten years. What did it mean? At first, I thought it was part of a story about powerlessness and betrayal. With more time and information, I could reframe it as one about suffering collateral damage from someone else’s childhood trauma.
With even more time and information, with my friend mirroring my stories back to me–It’s a lot, I am exhausted–I could understand my outburst as a response to not just one precipitating event, but to layers of events that have fused like a block of sedimentary rock in the bottom of a lake. I thought of Virginia Woolf wading into a river with her pockets full of stones, and I understood that all of it–my silence, my rage, my weariness–has been a response to an accumulation of small weights.
So, despite exhaustion, this week I began doing what I know will work to empty my pockets: resting, eating well, redrawing boundaries, taking care of what is mine to care for, moving my body, connecting with my people, disconnecting from noise, getting the words out. Framing the things that come at me through the lens of the serenity prayer.
The heavy, layered block is still there, under the waves. It will always be there. When I look down I can see it. But I am here, above it, treading water, still kicking.
And that is a lot.
Some things that were a lot this week:
A lot of veggies. I’ve been working on feeding our bodies well and eating less meat. This recipe is a keeper.
A lot of mushrooms. Spent time on Friday getting our outside world ready for winter and discovered this bed of mushrooms growing near our shed. It felt good to put the outdoor furniture away and clean out the tomato plants and disconnect the hoses. And to discover something that felt a little bit wondrous.
A lot of bark chips. We got a chip drop so we can expand our backyard planting area and kill more of the lawn there. Moving all of this from the front to the back is a lot of work. Felt good to use our bodies this way, though.
I’d love to tell you, after my last post, that we had a great, big, old-fashioned, raucuos, throwback Halloween.
Alas, we did not.
Our door got knocked on twice: we were visited by a small group of littles and their parents, as well as a pair of middle-school aged boys. Everyone was sweet, and we enjoyed a quiet evening eating soup and visiting with our friend, but at the end of the night we had a large bowlful of candy that no one wanted and I regretted spending money on.
I’d like to blame it on the weather, but I can’t do that, either. Unlike those of you who had snow (snow!), we had perfect trick-or-treating weather–dry and cool but not too cold.
“Probably would’ve been better to spend that money on some personal hygiene products to donate to the homeless village,” Cane said. Last year our neighborhood became home to a “micro-village” of transitional housing for some of Portland’s most vulnerable unsheltered adults. We are big fans of this project and the organization behind it, and we’re glad to see this so close to our home. I agreed, knowing that giving resources there would have been a much better way of serving our community.
His comment got me thinking about what I did and didn’t do and why, and I can see that I did the kind of thing that is typical of people like me who are full of good intentions but don’t take the time to really learn about the community they want to serve and/or be a part of. I did what would’ve been nice for me, thinking that what would work for me will work for everyone. Thanks to my years of work in diverse schools, I know better, but some ways of being are deeply ingrained. I see now that I didn’t pay enough attention to changes in our neighborhood to realize that what worked in the past probably doesn’t now.
If being a good member of my community was the goal (and it was), I’ve realized that I’m going to need to figure out some other ways of doing that. I’m going to have to stretch, probably outside of my comfort zone. Doing Halloween the same old way I’ve always done it was not that.
I know that letting go of traditions is easier said than done. It’s hard to let go of practices we once valued and saw value in–why I decided I needed to participate in trick-or-treating even though some part of me already knew that the payoff wasn’t worth the effort it takes–and that’s why I’m not beating myself up for not figuring out more quickly or easily that showing up at my door once a year with a bowlful of candy is not what my community needs from me.
All of this is coming at just the right time, too, with the holiday season now bearing down upon us. So much of what can make this time of year tough for me is trying to hang onto things from the past that no longer serve myself and those I care for. No matter how much I cling to the things we’ve always done, the holidays are not going to feel the same way they did when my grandparents were alive and my cousins and I all gathered at their house, or even when my children were young. That house is gone. So are those earlier versions of my family. So are important things I once believed about Thanksgiving and Christmas and my culture and the world. It’s a good time for thinking about what still works and what we might let go of, to make room for some new things that will be better for all the lives we want to nurture.
None of this is particularly new or revelatory. I know that letting go and revising and creating (a holiday, a family, a community, a world) is something that we are all doing all the time. It was nice, though, to have that knowledge brought to the surface this week. Learning is so often like ascending a spiraling path; you go past the same places again and again, but each time a little bit higher, so you can see things from a different vantage point.
In related news…
I saw Kari mention that she is taking a month off from social media, and the same day this post (A Permanent Good-bye to Social Media) came across my path and both felt like nudges to do something I’d been thinking about doing. I deactivated FB and Instagram and removed their apps from my phone. Messenger is still active if you want to reach me, or you can email me. I’m thinking about stepping back from this space for awhile, too. I’m not sure about that, but don’t worry if it’s quiet here.
Although this post is about letting go of old ways, I’m feeling curious about reclaiming some. I’m wondering how it will be–how I might be–with more quiet, more privacy, more time spent offline. Will I do more writing? More reading? About what? Will I take as many photos? Will they be of the same things? Why will I take them, if not to share? Will I make more things with my hands? Will I feel lonely? More peaceful? Restless? Bored? All of the above? Will I learn something about why and how to connect with others through some disconnection?
It feels good to take a break from a place of curiosity, rather than rage or fear or burn-out. (Although, those are all perfectly valid reasons to walk away from anything.) I’m looking forward to seeing what I can see.
Would love to know what you hold onto and what you’ve let go of, and why.
I was going to skip Halloween this year. I made plans with a friend to go somewhere–anywhere–away from home so that I could keep the lights turned off and avoid trick-or-treaters. The candy has become so expensive, and I didn’t want to buy and carve pumpkins. It’s hard to know how many will actually come. Some years we get a fair number. Last year, when it rained, we only had two or three and at the end of the night I was left with a big bowl of candy that I didn’t want.
I just wasn’t feeling it.
Over the weekend, though, we had friends for dinner. They are Jewish, and as we talked about what is happening to them, for them, I found myself revisiting my Halloween plan. I found myself thinking about community, and what it means to be a member of one. In our conversation, I told my story about a rift with my next-door neighbor. More than a year ago we found ourselves on different sides of a conflict over the creation of a project to house unhoused people in our neighborhood, and since then my formerly friendly neighbor avoids me. She once turned around and walked in the opposite direction when she saw us approaching as we were out walking on a sunny evening after dinner. She is Israeli, spending part of every year with family there, and I have wanted to check in on her, offer something that would be helpful, but I haven’t had the courage to reach out.
I found myself revisiting memories of my childhood Halloweens.
There was the year my brother wanted to be a sprinkler. My brother, who is significantly autistic (though we didn’t know that until he was an adult), was fascinated with sprinklers. He could sit and watch them for what seemed like hours to me. He loved them so much that he would go into neighbors’ yards and pull out their hoses and turn their sprinklers on. (It was the 70’s, a different era. There were few fences and every kid we knew was free-range.) Our neighbors on one side complained, but the neighbors on the other side, the Fryes, were kind about it.
My mother was stumped about how to turn my brother into a sprinkler, but eventually she figured out how to do it. She made him a green cape, then fashioned a wave sprinkler (his favorite kind) from styrofoam and tin foil for him to wear on his head. Most people did not know what he was; many guessed that he was an alien. But Mr. Frye? As soon as he opened the door, he began laughing. Really laughing. Belly-laughing. He knew right away what Joe was, and that he knew made me like him even more than I already did. (The Fryes had two plum trees, and they gave me a standing invitation to climb them with my books in hand and to sit and read and eat as many plums as I’d like.)
Both Mr. and Mrs. Frye had cleft palates, and so their speech could be a little hard for me to understand. They knew, as our family did, too, what it was like to be judged and misunderstood for simply being who you are. What it was like to be treated meanly by those who more easily fit into society’s norms.
Another year, perhaps the last good year before invading hormones began to change Halloween for me, my group of girlfriends came to my neighborhood to trick or treat with me. We were a loud horde of shrieking tweenagers just beginning to glimpse what life might become as we kept running ahead of my mother.
We turned into one yard I was unfamiliar with, running and shouting and kicking leaves down a long front path to a small house. An old man opened the door to us, holding a finger to his lips as he waved us into the house. That was strange, and I felt a little uneasy, but we all trooped in. “Don’t wake the little one,” he cautioned, and I saw a young girl asleep on a couch, a hand-knit blanket draped over her body. There was a fire burning in a fireplace and old-fashioned music playing low from a radio. I felt like I’d stepped into one of my books, one that told a story set in a different time.
“Just a moment,” he said, and went into an adjoining room. He returned with a tray of caramel apples, each wrapped with the kind of plastic wrap our mothers all had in their kitchens. “Here you go,” he said, and told us that we should each choose one. We each slipped an apple into our bags, quietly, and moved to the door. I didn’t want to leave. Something about this house, so different from my own and from all the others we’d visited, felt so good to me.
Back out at the road, by mother was waiting anxiously. She asked me why we’d gone into the house.
“He asked us to,” I said.
“Don’t do that again,” she cautioned. I showed her the treat–one unlike any other I’d ever received–and she told me that I would have to throw it away because it was home-made. I protested, describing what the house had been like, what he’d been like, but she was firm. “We don’t know him,” she said, “and we can’t accept those kinds of treats from people we don’t know.”
I knew she was wrong–I knew it!–but I did what I was told, keeping only this memory that is still vivid nearly 50 years later.
After dinner with our friends, I thought of the children in my neighborhood, the boys who shoot baskets in the street and ride their bikes and skateboards in a loop in front of our house. They are Russian, and they’ve never come trick-or-treating, but there are others in our little part of this large city who have. I thought about how hard so many things are for so many children, and about my fears for the future they will be living their lives in.
Then I texted my friend and asked if instead of going out she’d like to come over for dinner and help me hand out candy. Ours is a neighborhood that doesn’t see a lot of kids on Halloween, even when the weather is good. We are tucked between two major thoroughfares. Many of the folks who live here are older, and a good number of the younger ones are members of cultures that don’t celebrate Halloween in the ways I traditionally have. Ours is the opposite of a destination neighborhood, one that people drive their kids to because they are full of large, decorated houses and streets filled with bands of costumed kids and parents. Even on a good year, our streets are sparsely filled.
But there are kids who come, and they live here.
So, Cane and my friend and I are going to eat soup and have a fire and maybe play a board game. When I asked her about changing our plan, my friend offered to bring some candy to add to our treat bowl.
I know that staying home and answering the door to families in my community won’t change the situation in Israel/Gaza. It won’t ease my friends’ or neighbors’ pain. It won’t house those without houses or fix the climate or our broken political system or any of the systems that make some neighborhoods a destination for Halloween and others something else. But it will help some people feel good right here, where we are all living together, even if just for an evening. Maybe it will make us something other than total strangers to at least some of our neighbors, so that if one of them at some time needs or wants something I can give, they’ll be more easily able to accept it.
Maybe I’m pinning too much on a welcoming house and a generous treat, but a material gift that is an expression of love–one that says, “your neighborhood, too, has adults who want to care for you”–is probably worth the price of a few pumpkins and bags of candy.
Woke up Friday to a long read (appropriately) from Longreads about the literary world and online writing: Poets and the Machine. It was part history of online writing and part musing about why the literary world has shunned such as having literary merit, and it made me feel interested in writing here in a way that I haven’t felt in awhile. It reminded me of the possibilities for online writing that I got excited about back in the late 90’s (blogs are about to turn 30 years old!), and it got my brain turning. I felt a little spark, some ember of something within me flare.
On the subject of writing here, and online in general, I’m finding that more and more of my online reading is happening on Substack. (Head here to learn more about Substack.) Substack is a free newsletter service, but it feels (and looks) a lot like writing-focused, old school blogging to me. As my annual renewal for WordPress approaches, I’m thinking of shifting over to it. I’m not much interested in charging for my writing (what Substack is built for), but I like the idea of a free platform without ads.
One of my favorite Substack’s is Anne Helen Petersen’s Culture Study, which I do pay ($5/month) for. I learn a lot about topics I care about, and there is a robust community there; both make the small payment well worth the price for me. (Much of her content is free, but you do have to pay to be part of the community.) It is, as she regularly asks readers to keep it, “one of the good places on the internet.” Petersen has some regular paid-subscriber only prompts that are goldmines of great info. My favorite is “what are you reading?” which fuels my holds request list at the library, and I’ve found some great shows through “what are you watching?” A recent prompt to share favorite soup recipes yielded so many soups I want to try making.
Through a recent post there, I found another Substack this week that also blew air on an ember I thought might have extinguished: Rebecca’s Your House Machine. I particularly enjoyed “How you spend your time is who you are” and “Shield your eyes from your stuff–yes, really.” My neurodivergent self felt so seen by the latter one, and it helped me understand why questions about home interiors are so compelling to me that I once (with Cane) had a whole blog just about making a home. Basically, she’s writing what I wish I had written. (Maybe I did? Maybe I will again? We’ll see.)
Sari Botton’s Oldster, which is about “exploring what it means to travel through time in a human body.” I love this one, as my mind is being blown on a regular basis by the intersections of time and bodies and what it means to be human.
Dr. Jen Gunter’s The Vajenda, an “an evidence-based hub for reproductive health matters.” Most of my reproductive system left the building years ago, but I find so much valuable information here. And I like the writing.
Kelton Wright’s Shangrilogs, which is “a peephole into a different life — one centered around small town living, high-alpine adventure, and deep dives into nature.” Wright is a Millenial living in a small mountain town, and I’m living vicariously through her engaging writing. (For the record, I could never actually live her life, but I like to think I could. That’s why I appreciate being able to read about it.)
So tell me (if you’re so inclined)…
Anything you’re reading online that you think others might like/appreciate?
Any thoughts on blogs vs. Substack?
Would it make any difference to you if I started over on a new platform?
What would you like Rita to write about? (Not promising anything, but this blog is feeling a little too aimless to me…maybe that’s why I’ve been ignoring it.)
(Also, one last read, about Lilla Irvin Leach, without whom there would be no Leach Botanical Gardens, where this photo was taken last week. I wish someone would make a movie about her.)
Those first-stage-of-love endorphins have died down, and a part of me was relieved to take a break from skating when we left to spend the summer in Louisiana. I hadn’t been able to skate consistently for several months, and my progress had stalled. I wasn’t sure about what kind of skater I wanted to be, and I was struggling with all the beliefs I’ve internalized about productivity and how they rubbed up against the time I was taking to do an activity that I saw as being primarily about my own enjoyment. I just wasn’t sure where I wanted the relationship to go, to the point that I was wondering if I even wanted to continue it.
Still, I returned to the ice in mid-August. The first few times were rough! I loved seeing people I’d missed, but I’d lost strength. I’d lost moves I previously had. I’d lost stamina. I made myself stay for an hour, but after only 20 minutes what I really wanted was to go home.
What a gift. For all that I know–truly!–that many of my feelings about productivity and time stem from problematic socialization, I have a really hard time doing something that’s just for me, just because I want to. The quick deterioration of balance, strength and stamina, despite a summer of hard, physical work, helped me see that skating isn’t just fun for me; it is a way for me to maintain physical functioning as I age. Because I’ve become part of a community of skaters, it also provides the mental health benefits that come from connection and belonging. It ticks off two of the seven keys to longevity that mark the lifestyles of those living in blue zones. I got off the ice my first day back more committed than I’d ever been to make space in my life for skating.
Committing to the relationship was only the first hurdle. I quickly realized that I still had to figure how to be in the relationship.
There are a lot of options for adult skaters–testing, competitions, clubs, classes, private lessons, etc. There are different kinds of skating a person might focus on–freestyle (jumps and spins), dance (solo or paired), moves in the field. I’d thought about and dabbled in different ways of skating since first returning to the ice. Exploring was good and I’m glad I tried on different goals and ways of being a skater, but my lack of a clear focus contributed to my feelings of ennui. Then, a long thread in an online forum this August full of older skaters talking about life-altering skating injuries gave me serious pause about my attempts to return to jumping and spinning. Did I really want to risk my ability to do all kinds of things I now take for granted just so I could do a waltz jump that was likely never going to look or feel the way it did 45 years ago? A few weeks ago, while talking about possible goals with another skater, I said, “I think I’d rather do simple things beautifully than hard or risky things I can barely get through.” As soon as I heard myself, I knew I’d figured it out, my new skating manifesto:
Simple things, done beautifully.
I want to be a strong skater. I want to skate with speed. I want to skate without fear. I want to skate gracefully. I can do all of those things if I’m skating simply.
At my next lesson, I shared this way of thinking about it with my coach. “You often say you don’t want to nit-pick,” I told him, “but I think I want you to nit-pick. I don’t want to just execute a move. I want to master it.” He took me back to working on basics.
I then had one of the best lessons I’ve ever had. Focusing on moving beautifully broke through a block in understanding I’d had about doing crossovers, one of the simplest moves there is. I was able to do crossovers more powerfully than I had previously, and with less fear.
That felt so good, I started thinking about how it might be to do other simple things beautifully. I followed Kate Lebo’s process for making chicken pot pie, one night roasting a chicken and making gravy, and the next roasting vegetables (using herbs from our garden) and making pie crust. The third night I put all the parts together into a pie, and it was pretty amazing. Pot pie is one of the simplest dishes there is, and Lebo showed me how to make it beautifully. Now, I’m wondering how I might apply this way of thinking and being to everything–to my relationships, to work, to writing, to making a home.
I’ve been thinking particularly about how this idea can serve me within the context of aging. My return to skating has, like nothing else, made concrete the disconcerting abstraction that my body is going to deteriorate (if I’m lucky) before it dies. I know in new ways that the longer I live, the more I will lose of the physical being I once was. Losing things is hard. It has been hard to accept lost abilities that will never return. It has been hard to lose my youthful conviction that if I just work hard enough, my body can do whatever I want it to. I know that confronting such kinds of loss this late in life is a sign of my good fortune. I’m grateful for it, but loss is still loss. I think, perhaps, that one way to find peace with it all is to think about how to do fewer things more beautifully.
Doing simple things beautifully wasn’t always an option when I was younger and in the thick of parenting and teaching, because doing things more beautifully doesn’t necessarily mean doing them more easily. I lived those years in survival mode, getting done what I had to get done in whatever ways I could manage. My life was complicated, and it was often far from beautiful. Chicken pot pie from scratch for a weeknight dinner was not something I had any capacity for.
But, now I do, at least some of the time. Again, what a gift.
It is nice, in this stage of life that can be so marked by loss, to find things we might gain. I love the paradox of gaining by letting go, of expanding what’s possible by lessening our expectations. In my first identity as a skater, I was someone who advanced quickly. I was “a natural.” My coach would show me how to do something, and I could just do it. Big goals were in the realm of possibility. I have had to let go of that identity. I am not that skater now. I’m never going to land (much less attempt) a double salchow again, and it takes me much longer to improve when learning something new, but a strong, sweeping, beautiful, simple swing roll, for example, is definitely within reach.
Isn’t that a gift, too, to be be able to find paths to growth, even as we become, in some ways, diminished? I think it is, and I’ll take it–to my garden, to my friendships, to my home, and even to my writing here.
I would love to hear how any of these thoughts land on you, and of how you do simple things beautifully.
(Tomatoes picked yesterday from our simple garden. We grow only tomatoes, a few herbs, blueberries, and raspberries.)
On Thursday morning, while taking a bath in a clawfoot tub at the top of a house built in the 1800’s, with windows that look out to the water, wishing I could live the rest of my life in such a place, I read an essay by Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum, “On Moving Home.” In it, she describes her experience of moving back to Seattle after living in New York, and of her homesickness–“a full-blown virus from which I could not recover”–that precipitated the move. (You can find that essay, along with other rich meditations on home, in This is the Place: Women Writing About Home, edited by Margot Kahn and Kelly McMasters.)
I know that particular kind of homesickness.
My parents no longer live in the south Seattle suburb where they raised me in a house at the edge of woods with paths we took to the beach; for more than 20 years they’ve been living on the Olympic peninsula, in a different house within walking distance of rocky beaches. Both places are home to me. Bellingham, a city just south of the Canadian border, is the third place I think of when I think of home. All my grandparents lived there, one set of them on a hill overlooking Bellingham Bay. When I long for home I am not longing for any of these particular places, but for the things that mark all three locations for me. I am longing for a place along Puget Sound where you can smell salt in the air, and when you look in the distance long stretches of firs seam water to sky. I am longing for the plaintive cries of gulls and a ferry horn’s guttural bellow.
Friday morning I took a ferry from the peninsula to Seattle, where my son has been living. It was the kind of morning that makes people from other places think this corner of the world would be an amazing place to live: mild temperatures, quaint towns, and so much watery blue.
As I walked across the ferry’s loading zone parking lot to get the view above, I felt so lucky to be native to this place, to have this be the kind of place I feel most at home. (But, just to be clear for anyone who is not from here: Part of the reason such days feel so wonderful is that they are not common. There are many, many days of grey drizzle in the cold part of the year, which, in my youth at least, could be nearly nine months long. But many of us who grew up here love those days, too.) My deep sense of familiarity and of knowing how to be here–so deep I am usually unaware that there are, in fact, things to know about how to be here–felt so comfortable and comforting after the discomfort of the summer.
I am reading a book of essays about home, and thinking and writing about this home, because I am still thinking and writing about our experiences in Louisiana this summer. Last week’s post feels like a beginning more than an ending. It’s a piece of writing that I know I am not done with.
This week I have also been reading Kelly McMasters’s The Leaving Season, a memoir in essays about marriage and divorce I am appreciating far more than the one that was all the rage a few months ago. (McMasters is one of the editors of the essay collection that contains Lunstrum’s essay; I’d like to tell you how I stumbled upon her work, but I can’t remember. It was sometime in the spring that I placed both books on hold at the library, and I am only just now getting them.) From McMasters’s essay “The Ghosts in the Hills” I recorded these words:
“When we enter into a place that is outside of our usual experience, it is our position as an outsider that often allows us to see things differently. It also magnifies those things about ourselves that remain constant, no matter what world we enter.”
I suppose many readers would take these words to mean that a position as an outsider in a place allows us to see things in that place differently from those who are insiders–which is often true, of course–but my experience as an outsider in Louisiana is allowing me to see the places of my usual experience differently than I had before, too. For all the beauty I see in western Washington, for all that I love it more deeply than I will ever love any other place, I can now see, in a different way, its flaws, too. And my own.
This month, I’m entering into my third year of retirement (sort of, mostly) from education. A fair number of people asked me, when I left, if I was going to do more writing or focus on writing. It was a thing I always thought I would like to be able to do. It was a thing some part of me thought I probably should do. But any time I thought about it, I felt nothing but ambivalence. There was nothing much I wanted to say, and no goals related to writing that I could feel myself caring much about. Given that, writing hasn’t been something I’ve given much time to. Other things felt more compelling.
Over the past few weeks, as I’ve been writing about renovation and Louisiana, I’ve been feeling a shift. I don’t have a goal in mind, and I don’t have something particular to say. Instead, I have questions I want to think about, and this week it occurred to me (in a duh! kind of way) that questions are always my best way in, the best reason for me to write.
I’m not feeling ambitious or dutiful or purposeful. I’m feeling curious. That, too, feels like going home.
In the five weeks that Cane, his brothers, his mother, and I worked on the house this summer, the kitchen cabinets were my primary project. We decided to keep and paint them, rather than replace them, a decision I was not certain about.
If you didn’t look closely–as we didn’t when first looking at the house–the cabinets didn’t seem that bad. (See photo above.) But as Cane’s mother and I started prepping to paint, we found years of built-up grease and dirt inside them, on them, and around them. Under the refrigerator and dishwasher, we found mounds of mouse poop. Yes, mounds.
Here’s the interior of one drawer after cleaning, and another one before:
The cleaning alone took more than a week with both of us working all day long on nothing else.
How can someone have lived in a place like this? I kept wondering. I’ve long believed that our homes reflect how we live, and it was hard to imagine a good life being lived here.
We knew from our realtor that the previous occupant of the house was an Army Special Forces officer. Over the summer we learned from neighbors that he likely had hoarding and alcohol disorders.
“I went into the house once,” a man across the street said. “I never went back again. I did not want to be in there.”
We bought the house from his daughter; he was estranged from her for years because he would not accept her same-sex partner. She has long lived in another state. He lived alone and died after a prolonged illness. He was divorced. Thinking about the man who had lived in the deteriorating house, who graduated from high school the same year my dad did, who likely served in Vietnam and perhaps in other dubious and difficult campaigns, I felt an uncomfortable mix of compassion, anger, and sorrow. It was clear from the stories and the state of the house that he was a person both damaged and damaging.
As the kitchen project dragged on through days sweltering from climate change, a failing HVAC unit, and air ducts damaged by rodents, I began to feel mired in dysfunction. It was a feeling that often followed me out of the house and into the community, where I saw so many churches, so many flags, and so many people living hard lives marked by poverty and a different kind of racism than any I’d previously encountered. In the beginning, I entertained thoughts of somehow healing something by healing the house, but as the days passed that idea began to seem, at best, a naive conceit. (At worst, an ignorant and arrogant one.) Anger–about so many things–became my dominant emotion, and I found it harder and harder to feel compassion for the person who had lived within the house’s walls. I understood all the reasons I should, but what I felt more was a desire to eradicate, not heal. I wanted nothing of the person and circumstances that permeated the house to remain.
(But what would eradication mean? To remove all traces of him, we’d have to tear the whole thing down. And what would that mean?)
“If we were flipping this house, keeping these cabinets wouldn’t even be a question,” I said more than once in our first week. The labor costs of rehab would have made new cabinets the more economical choice, but we weren’t flipping the house, and, although my labor was not without cost, it was free.
“They aren’t even very functional,” I complained. The corners of the cabinets, accessible only by narrow doors, are full of space that can’t be reached. The fixed shelves in the uppers don’t allow for the storage of any tall items; a bottle of olive oil we bought didn’t fit upright in any of them.
“But these cabinets tell the story of the house,” Cane would counter. And he’s right; they do. The kitchen was expanded and renovated in the 1950’s when the house was moved from a neighboring town by the parents of the man who lived here. The primary bedroom was added then, too. “We’re preserving part of the house’s history. And besides, they’re in good structural shape and we can’t really afford all new ones,” Cane said. He was not wrong.
So, as I spent hours that turned into days scrubbing and sanding old plywood, I thought long and hard about how I like to talk about saving and mending things rather than throwing them out. I thought about all the times I’ve groaned watching HGTV shows in which designers take crowbars to vintage cabinets full of historical character. I thought about all the costs of our throw-away culture. At some point, I stopped thinking or talking about replacing the cabinets (I was too far in, and our money was going too fast on other things) and tried to embrace in them what seemed worth saving.
It took the better part of five weeks to clean, sand (before priming and then between each coat of primer and paint), prime (two coats, to keep stains from bleeding through the paint), and paint (3 coats) those cabinets. As I worked, I had to make decisions about how much rehabilitation to attempt. To restore the cabinets to their original condition would have taken more time than we had. I’d have had to go home with the cabinets unfinished, and I was damned if I was going to leave knowing that this project would be waiting for me upon my return next spring.
“It’s patina,” I began saying about the gouges I didn’t fill and the once-sharp edges rounded by layers of paint that remained rounded as I covered them with yet another layer. “Good enough is good enough,” I told myself.
I came to understand that, even if I had all the time in the world, true restoration might not have been possible. Some scars in the wood ran too deep. I began to wonder if anyone or anything can be truly rehabbed, returned to its former condition, or if they should be. The scars are part of the house’s history, and I can’t think of any situation in which scrubbing history clean is a good idea. I wondered what is lost and what is gained when we try to rehabilitate, and when we don’t. How often, I wondered, when we attempt rehabilitation, are we actually hoping to reach some state of being that is even better than an original one?
We were told more than once that the man who last lived in our house reconciled with his daughter before he died. It was a fact offered as some kind of redemption story, or as evidence that he was OK, at least in the end. It was offered as contrast to the physical evidence in the house of the kind of life he lived. “He reached out to her at the end,” more than one person said, as a way of excusing his actions toward his daughter. “You know, he was a conservative military guy,” they said, as a way of excusing him.
Sure, I thought as I threw out the bottle of Jägermeister and the religious medals we’d found in one of the cabinets, on a day when I was far more interested in eradication than repair, he reached out to his daughter when he was dying. When he needed her.
I don’t know if the thought was a fair one or a cruel one. Maybe it was both.
We finished the cabinets the day before I had to leave. They are now clean, inside and out, with fresh paint and shiny, new hardware. The drawers no longer stick, because I sanded the sides of them down and rubbed the slides with wax. Soap and paint will never solve the problem of the wasted space, and if you look closely at them, you can see all the things that some would call flaws and others would call patina, the evidence of their long history and humble beginnings. Some elements of the cabinets cannot be rehabbed away.
I want to tell you that I came to love them, and the house, and the place the house is in. I want to tell you that I now believe the rehabbed cabinets are better than anything we might have bought new. I want the cabinets to be a clean, easy metaphor about damage and restoration–of objects, of homes, of people, and of our country with its complicated and too-often brutal history. The honest truth, though, is that I’m not sure about them, and since nothing about rehabilitation is ever easy or clean, metaphors for it probably shouldn’t be, either.
I suppose the value of the rehabbed cabinets depends upon what you value.
The cabinets and the house stand in a region that has been home to Cane’s family since the 1700’s. Everything foreign to me there is deeply familiar to him, and he is as comfortable among the markers of rural south Louisiana as I am among northwest Washington’s old firs, big water, reticent people, liberal values, and cold salt air.
As I worked and lived through Louisiana’s long, hot summer, I came to realize that the place that is a certain kind of home for my husband–a place we call “home” even if we have lived somewhere else for decades longer than we ever lived there–is a complex one I will never fully know, understand, or belong in. It’s a place he and I will never be able to inhabit in the same way. I wondered over and over again if we’d made and were making the right choices–with the cabinets, with taking on a house that needed rehab, with making an investment in a part of the country that troubles and challenges me in so many ways, with our plan to live the end of our lives divided between his original home and mine.
Eventually I wondered what other questions might better serve me, because no matter which line of thought I followed to answer the questions I had, they all took me back to this:
None of the reasons for our choices (love, family, longing of several kinds) have changed. I know that if we could remake them, even knowing what we know now that we didn’t before this summer, we wouldn’t change any of the big ones. We’d still buy the house, we’d still spend our summer rehabbing it, and we’d still keep the cabinets.
What’s done is done, and perhaps the only question that really matters–about anything–is how to continue moving forward in the best way from where we are, hoping and working for what is or can be good.
This post has been several weeks in the making. I’m not sure of how much I got it right, and I think the ending it still in progress, but it conveys something of my current understanding of what I experienced this summer. I read a gorgeous essay about Louisiana this past week: Wyatt Williams’s “Lucinda Williams and the Idea of Louisiana.” I want to offer it here as a counterpoint to what I’ve written. In it, I recognize much of the Louisiana I got to see that is not represented in my words above. My words, which can only tell my experience from my perspective, can’t convey what the place is to those who have lived their lives there.
Louisiana is a mystery to me. It feels like a puzzle I will never know enough to solve or adequately describe. I suppose any place is to someone from outside of it, if you scratch even just a little bit below the surface of its food, language, and tourist attractions. Our weeks there were challenging and hard for me in so many ways: physically, intellectually, emotionally, socially. I loved having extended time with Cane’s family, with whom I felt moments of true joy and ease, but disorientation and disequilibrium were far more common. I remember telling my students more than once that learning is often uncomfortable and can even be painful. I learned a lot in our time there. I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to develop a fuller understanding of my husband and his family, of our country and its people, and of what it means to love.